Our first visit to the new improved Arcola and, whilst it is still very much a work in progress (you almost feel as if you are on a back lot at Twentieth Century Fox there are so many plywood partitions), the main performance space is incredible. Evoking both the Donmar and the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is a beautiful large double height room with exposed brick and cast ironwork, there is a balcony and the most comfortable seating on the fringe (note to Southwark Playhouse, ask them where they got the seats from for your new space). It was freezing by the second act but a fund is in place for a new heating system, so in the meantime keep your coat on.
Let’s get on with the show. The late Marvin Hamlisch’s final full blown musical, this 2002 Broadway also-ran has lyrics by Craig Carnelia and book by John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation). Set in New York in 1952, terrible people do terrible things to other mostly terrible people. Ex-vaudevillian snake-like gossip columnist J J Hunsecker has everything he wants except for the respect of his younger sister Susan. Sidney Falcone, a scheming small-time press agent with his eyes on the greater prize wheedles his way into Hunsecker’s inner circle and when Susan falls in love with “unsuitable” jazz musician Dallas, they both conspire to ensure that the course of true love runs anything but smooth.
With two charmlessly oily protagonists, David Bamber as Hunsecker and Adrian der Gregorian as Falcone, this is an inspired revival. Gregorian, a handsome hunk with a thrilling voice that soars into the Dalston night sky, is initially grovelling and subservient as he tries to play the master at his own game, but really doesn’t appreciate who he is up against. Bamber instils Hunsecker with such slimy malice that you constantly wonder what is really going on behind those shifty eyes, his tart retorts making Max Clifford and Simon Cowell look like amateurs. Both Bamber and der Gregorian know how to sell a song and Bamber’s telethon induced revival of his vaudeville act, Don’t Look Know, brings down the house.
Caroline Keiff’s Susan is a sweet tough cookie, having lived with her brother’s manipulative ways all her life, she is the only one not remotely bothered by his reputation. Stuart Matthew Price as Dallas proves once again what a fine performer he is, showing genuine hurt and disappointment when he realises his big break was the result of a Hunsecker/Falcone plan, he is surely one of our finest interpreters of song. Celia Graham in a tiny role as Falcone’s match-selling would-be ingénue, Rita, lights up the whole room during her fleeting appearances and the poignancy when Falcone pimps her for a favour is heart-breaking.
A large supporting cast, including the wonderful Claudia Kariuki who made such an impression in her professional stage debut in Ragtime at Regent’s Park over the summer, keep the proceedings fluid with beautiful harmonies and clever dance routines, thanks to choreographer Nathan M Wright, that play to all three sides of the auditorium seating.
The band of, I think, keyboards, double bass, drums, trumpet and trombone (they are not listed in the programme), manage to sound like the entire Count Basie orchestra and knock the hell out of Hamlisch’s jazz score, I have not heard such a glorious sound all year. There is a tiny caveat, in that the score, while sounding great, hasn’t really got any stand-out tunes. Call me old-fashioned but I like a couple of numbers I can attempt to sing in the shower when I get home.
The book meanwhile is sharp, taunt and suspenseful with a suitably grim ending.
Designer Mark Bailey’s neon signs perfectly evoke the New York jazz scene and together with David Howe’s sublime lighting keep the atmosphere dangerously seedy.
As is the case with Southwark Playhouse’s Victor/Victoria and the Union’s Steel Pier, director Mehmet Ergen, has taken a not-quite- there score and given it a first class production. With the influence of the popular press and media looming larger than ever, this a timely and relevant revival, although I doubt Rupert Murdoch resorts to Hunsecker style solutions when accomplices become surplus to requirements.
On this showing, I pray that the Arcola keeps on mounting more musicals of this calibre, as the auditorium is perfect and the number 38 is door to door for us.
Wrap up warm, get to Dalston and savour the sweet smell of a successful show wafting through the air.
Booking until 22 December 2012 - The Sweet Smell Of Success